Gamasutra's Best Of 2008

By Simon Carless,Chris Remo,Christian Nutt,Leigh Alexander,Eric Caoili

As the end of the year approaches, Gamasutra presents a collection of all of the year-end charts we've published over the last two weeks.

Spanning categories ranging from the year's biggest disappointments to the best surprises, our choices have alternately earned your praise, ire, and disbelief, as you're about to see in selected reader comments.

Just for fun, try comparing this year's winners to last year's. How does this year's crop of winning titles stack up against last year's offerings? Surprisingly, in some cases. Onward to the countdowns:

Top 5 Downloadable Games

First up, we take a look at the top five downloadable games released in 2008, from World Of Goo through PixelJunk Eden and beyond - with ten other 'honorable mentions' also included.

The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date, with eligible titles spanning both console and PC games. For the purposes of this particular chart, relevant games must be chiefly -- but need not be solely -- digitally distributed.

5. PixelJunk Eden (Q-Games, PlayStation 3)

Dylan Cuthbert and friends at the Kyoto, Japan-based Q-Games made it into last year's charts with the slightly more niche PixelJunk Racers. But this year, both Monsters and Eden debuted on PlayStation Network to both critical and gamer plaudits.

Eden itself is a charming, borderline psychedelic physics-heavy platform game with a beautiful soundtrack and addictive collection mechanics. More to the point, it has a breezy, enticing style that makes it abstract but pointed, all at the same time. It's a great example of a small-team independent game with original thought behind it.

4. N+ (Metanet Software, Slick Entertainment, Xbox 360)

While the original Flash version of N+ was a charming piece of Web-based minimalism, it wasn't entirely clear that a console version would be necessary, let along essential. After all, a vector-style ninja collecting gold worked just as well on your PC, right?

But once the Xbox Live Arcade version debuted, with wonderfully HD-ized visuals, a plethora of online scoreboards (with replays!), a gigantic amount of levels, and the same terribly addictive gameplay, it made sense. Only Microsoft's nervous restrictions on level sharing spoiled the party, but Metanet's cheap and plentiful expansions helped make up for that.

3. Braid (Number None, Xbox 360)

Me, you and everyone we know are fed up of hearing about Jon Blow's time-bending platform game Braid, of course. This is partly due to it winning an IGF prize all the way back in 2006, before an extensive graphical rehaul and its subsequent debut on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008. But try to shut the hype out, and you'll find something special.

Number None's Braid

Specifically, Braid is a title with carefully thought-out, ingenious puzzles, David Hellman's evocative art, and an underlying story that doesn't lack soul, however many different interpretations you might have of it. It's a game that makes you think and one that you care about, ultimately - and its rapturous critical reception reflects that.

2. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (Bizarre Creations, Xbox 360)

The original Xbox Live Arcade version of Geometry Wars, itself a sequel to a programmer-created homage to classic '80s twin-stick shooters like Robotron, re-ignited the genre. It also raised an interesting question. When you've been to 10 already, where is 11 in the world of abstract shooter gymnastics?

While perhaps not as mainstream as some of the other games on this list, Geometry Wars 2 is a perfectly pitched evolution of the franchise. It particularly succeeds in some of the ingenious 'side stories' that make clever alternative use of the gameplay -- 'King' and the fiendish 'Pacifism' being highlights. Add in robust online score integration for a 'beat your friends' fest, and the perfectly thought out 'Sequence' mode, and you have an adrenaline-bespattered winner.

1. World Of Goo (2D Boy, Wii/PC)

Who would have thought that the best downloadable game of the year would be a practically bizarre strategy game that would have the player building bridges and towers out of... sentient goop? You can feel the amount of careful polish that the two-man 2D Boy put into the Burton-esque dark fantasy setting and ingenious puzzle settings.

The icing on the cake? Intelligent metagame goals such as the World Of Goo Corporation mega-tower, built out of goo saved from your regular levels, and the OCD Flag mode for advanced players. Thsis meant that the game defined the key characteristics of 2008's best downloadable games: short-play, carefully iterated, and cleverly multilayered.

Finally, honorable mentions for some of our favorite downloadable games in 2008 that didn't quite reach the top five go to: Audiosurf, Bionic Commando Rearmed, Castle Crashers, Echochrome, Hinterland, LostWinds, MegaMan 9, Rez HD, Ticket To Ride, and Wipeout HD.

You said:

Oliver Snyders: "It's pretty telling that a majority of the top five downloadable games and honourable mentions are platformers of some description or use a 2D perspective, each bringing something new to their respective genres. Does this mean the 2D platformer *still* isn't dead?"

Bill Boggess: "I think Bionic Commando: Rearmed not being in the top five is ridiculous. It's actually one of the flat out best games released this year, downloadable or otherwise. Super Street FigherII HD Remix has proven to be an incredibly successful endeavor as well, though the hardcore nature of the game makes it a more niche offering."

Tom Newman: "Galaga Legions is hands down the best downloadable game this year. The other choices are great too, but the combination of great play mechanics with lots of HD geometry based eye-candy proved to be the most impressive downloadabe game."


Top 5 Disappointments

Next, we go in-depth on 2008's top five biggest disappointments, from rampant piracy to the oft-downplayed impact of the economic downturn on the games industry.

5. Wii Software Is Still Weak

Sure, it's a tough sell to assert that the Wii is a disappointment of any stripe. It outsells its fellow consoles handily, has brought gaming into the mainstream family living room, and has done a goodly heap of shiny white image control for an industry that many still want to relegate to the domain of the basement nerd.

But the Wii's banner success seems to do little good overall for anyone other than Nintendo -- its lineup of successful third party titles is still too thin as the console comes up on its third Christmas, while the company's own Wii Fit and Wii Sports remain top sellers.

And while Nintendo has long promised "something for the hardcore," few rejoiced to know that Animal Crossing: City Folk was that something, and barely iterative on its predecessors to boot.

Nintendo can easily keep in riches through the whims of the faddish mainstream trendline -- and that's only sensible, the well-earned fruits of brilliant business savvy and an admirable marketing campaign. But it's disappointing to see that arguably the most successful console of all time has so little to do with the rest of the video game industry.

4. Rampant, Unrepentant Piracy

Piracy has always been a problem for the game industry, and one could even argue that an increase in the variety of copy protection mechanisms and the success of distribution services like Steam has actually lessened the issue in recent years.

But unfortunately, we've got few reliable ways to measure it concretely, so all we know is that whether it's a high-budget, long-lead title like Spore or a wildly innovative indie success story like World of Goo, alarming numbers in the audience still think it's fair to steal en masse.

Some digital rights management methods are controversial, as are the publishers that continue to employ them despite widespread protest, and the industry has yet to offer compelling data that demonstrates the extent to which piracy hurts the business.

But turning a profit on a game is a high-risk proposition already, and any activity that shaves those profits harms innovation and the medium's future health -- and it's disappointing to see continuing volumes of people who believe there's any rationale for that.

3. The Holiday Glut

Last year, we were promised that 2008 would be a breakout year for a maturing medium, and this holiday saw one of the most impressive release slates across the board in terms of quality and differentiation than we have perhaps ever seen.

But did anyone, whether critic, reviewer or consumer, really have time to give any of these titles more than a cursory fifteen minutes of fame? The year-end crunch meant hype-driven flashbangs that dissipated far too fast before cultural pressure demanded attentions turn to the Next Big Thing -- which is a shame, when what we've asked for all along is titles with enough depth for us to savor at length.

And the holiday glut tactic actually turned out to create additional challenges for the industry as the floor fell out from under the economy -- better sales from better titles earlier in the summer might have boosted investor confidence ahead of tough times. Let's hope that next year publishers space their crown jewels out a bit better, for everyone's sake.

2. Lack Of Critical Vocabulary

The critical reception for many of the year's interesting titles often seemed inconsistent and stilted throughout the year. It seemed like many reviewers (among whom this editor includes herself) struggled to find a new language through which to evaluate the offerings of a medium whose complexity -- both technically and creatively -- ramped to new heights in 2008.

Reviewers even argued amongst themselves the merit of the assertion that they might be missing the forest for the trees, as the old "product guide" methodology continues to translate ever more poorly to the modern era.

Discussion and media coverage of games -- which is capable of creating ambassadorship between the culture of games and the culture of more established mainstream media -- would do well in 2009 to embrace the distinction between "review" and "criticism," and to better incorporate the idea that games are now a much more subjective, experiential medium than they were in the days of pixels and bloops.

1. We Are Not Recession-Proof

Former U.S. Presidential candidate John McCain received a widespread backlash when he faced the darkening economic horizon and claimed, "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." He later clarified that, in making this assertion, he was referring to the spirit of the American worker, but general consensus held it was still something of a naive statement.

And the fundamentals of the game industry may indeed still be strong -- monthly NPD is still growing, with declines largely due to mitigating factors in year-over-year comparisons. Hardware is still selling, and a raft of analyst opinions and retailer surveys show that even the cash-strapped consumer is still buying video games.

But even the stalwarts among the industry's major publishers feel the pinch when investors -- themselves cash-strapped consumers -- get skittish. And lowered share values, sales declines or profit gaps that might be statistically insignificant to them can be outright punishing to smaller or more challenged companies.

In the end, nobody likes reporting on layoffs, but we did quite a lot of that as the whispered word "recession" grew into a roar, and the industry indeed felt the impact from the bottom to the top. Companies like Electronic Arts, THQ and NCsoft tightened their belts and terminated projects and staff.

Midway now threatens to buckle under the weight of its backers' credit crunch, and many smaller studios were jettisoned, acquired or shuttered. Those that remain face major challenges -- a credit crisis can spell the end for promising venture-backed startup studios who may now never see their projects get off the ground.

So it'll likely be another successful holiday for the video game industry, even more impressive and positively portentous considering what it's up against. But even when products sell, when people are hurt, "recession-proof" is the wrong word.

Rather than parrot the gratifying refrain, it may be wise to prepare to consider how the displacement of talent and the climate of increasing risk aversion will affect the creative direction of the industry in the coming years.

You said:

Anthony Velli: "As a consumer, I would put holiday glut at #1. It simply makes no sense. I understand that traditional philosophy dictates that people are willing to spend money at this time so it is the best to put product to market, but I think video games subscribe to a different model. A game is a large purchase and takes a while for its value to the consumer to be exhausted. It makes no sense to release all the best games in a two week period while leaving sparse few AAA titles for the rest of the year."

Ephriam Knight: "Yes the Wii software line up is weak. But again another article makes it sound like that is Nintendo's fault. Yes Nintendo games sell well. But they don't have to be the only ones. Third party developers need to stop trying to be Nintendo and be themselves and make games for the Wii."

Stone Bytes: "If anything, the recession may be the push the industry needed to lay off the old ways, and move towards the flexibility granted by intelligent outsourcing, orbiting core studios. While sales numbers would probably continue to grow, the industry's morphing may actually make it healthier than ever within less than two years."


Top 5 Overlooked Games

Next, we'll cover this year's top five overlooked games (with ten other honorable mentions), calling attention to high quality releases that went mostly ignored by mainstream consumers, the gaming press, and video game communities.

The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date, with eligible titles spanning home consoles, handhelds, and PC.

5. Roogoo (SpiderMonk Entertainment, XBLA/PC)

Though its simple design and cartoonish presentation invited comparisons to Fisher Price's "Baby's First Blocks" toy, Roogoo was praised by reviewers for its fast-paced gameplay, challenging stages, and online multiplayer mode.

The casual title didn't generate as much buzz as some of the other innovative puzzle games released this year, like Electronic Arts' Boom Blox and Void Star Creations' Poker Smash, but Roogoo will have another chance to attract open-minded gamers in 2009 with Nintendo DS and Wii releases.

4. Culdcept Saga (OmiyaSoft/Jamsworks, Xbox 360)

Initially released in Japan in 2006, Culdcept Saga didn't make it stateside until February of this year. This strategy board game series -- often described as a mix of Monopoly and Magic the Gathering -- has never been popular in the U.S., but with its dated visuals and card-based gameplay, this was a particularly hard sell as a disc release to Xbox 360 gamers, even with its budget price.

Those who were able to look past Culdcept Saga's eccentric premise and dowdy 3D cutscenes, however, found an addictive and unique strategy experience with lots of replay value and beautiful card art.

3. Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection (FarSight Studios, Wii/PS2/PSP)

While many gamers marked 2008 as a blue-ribbon year for revivals of retro franchises -- MegaMan, Bionic Commando, and Space Invaders -- most quickly dismissed Crave Entertainment's collection of arcade classics, Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection.

The game offers ten (mostly) faithful virtual reproductions of Williams pinball tables from the 70s to 90s. Anyone who longs to hear the sound of a small steel ball rolling up an entry lane but doesn't have the time or money to purchase and refurbish a pinball machine, should definitely look into this anthology.

2. Pure (Black Rock Studio, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)

Without the name recognition that other racing titles enjoyed with their sequels this year, Pure's debut (and Black Rock Studio's debut under Disney's banner) went unnoticed by anyone who wasn't paying attention to reviews. Created by the same studio behind ATV Offroad Fury 3 and 4, naturally, this offroad racing title garnered a slew of top-end ratings.

Pure received near universal acclaim from critics, with many lauding its detailed graphics, exaggerated trick system, and reckless sense of speed. Unfortunately, not many gamers picked this up to enjoy those highlights themselves.

1. Soul Bubbles (Mekensleep, DS)

Soul Bubbles' goofy cover design and limited marketing budget didn't do the game any favors, but its Toys R' Us-exclusive release ensured that almost everyone missed out on this clever, polished title fitted for both casual and core players.

Gamers looking for an original and creative Nintendo DS title that takes advantage of the system's touchscreen would do well to try out Soul Bubbles. If you're specifically looking for something nonviolent or even more soothing than the typical game, even better!

Finally, honorable mentions for some of our favorite overlooked games in 2008 that didn't quite reach the top five go to: Shiren the Wanderer, Multiwinia, Yakuza 2, Civilization 4: Colonization, Blast Works, Princess Debut, Spin (iPhone), MLB Power Pros 2008, Sega Superstars Tennis, and Spider-Man: Web of Shadows (DS).

You said:

Kale Menges: "I don't know how many hours I actually burned on Pinball Hall of Fame: Williams Collection. The first Pinball Hall of Fame was my most played game on the original Xbox, and I'm hoping that the guys at Farsight get the chance to do at least one more collection."

Carl Chavez: "I'm not surprised Culdcept Saga didn't fare well, since it doesn't fit its target audience very well (relatively low-end graphics and sound, best for long-play, social group multiplayer instead of short-play, single-machine multiplayer). Perhaps the next version of Culdcept would be more suitable on Wii?"

Yannick Boucher: "Problem with Pure is that the market has CLEARLY had enough ATV games. Look at Motorstorm Pacific Rift, it suffered the same fate. It's not the quality, it's the subject matter. Forget about ATV racing, it's out for a while."


Top 5 Gameplay Mechanics

Next, we'll cover this year's top five gameplay mechanics (with ten other honorable mentions), calling attention to a number of innovative, novel, or particularly well-executed individual elements of game design from throughout the year.

The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date, with eligible titles spanning home consoles, handhelds, and PC.

For these broad purposes, "gameplay mechanic" can refer to an input method, a character action, rules affecting the game world, and so on.

Generally, features were considered only if they were meaningfully implemented in their franchise for the first time, which in most (but not all) cases excluded sequels. They did not need to represent the first time any such feature has been implemented in a game, if they demonstrated particular excellence or importance.

Games are listed alphabetically; no order of preference is implied.

Braid (Jonathan Blow/Number None; Xbox 360)
Mechanic: time manipulation

Braid is not the first game to incorporate a time manipulation mechanic, but it is surely the first game to integrate one so crucially, permeating every moment and puzzle to a degree usually reserved for basic actions like running and jumping. And each world was treated as a gameplay variation on the theme of time, taking that central mechanic and expanding it in elegant ways.

The pervasiveness of that mechanical theme even extended to the game's narrative and protagonist, putting a gameplay property front and center in the kind of thorough way that remains surprisingly infrequent in game design, which makes it all the more impressive on the part of designer Jon Blow that the mechanic itself is so unusual.

Left 4 Dead (Valve/Valve South; PC, Xbox 360)
Mechanic: cooperative player assistance, AI director

Cooperative play has been undergoing a welcome renaissance lately, and Valve's recent zombie-themed shooter has reached a new high in the balance between genuinely necessary cooperation and individual agency.

Some games simply drop multiple players into an otherwise single-player campaign, and some become cumbersome in their devotion to constant cooperative acts, but Left 4 Dead's simple player-to-player assistance interactions -- not to mention the inherent benefit of cooperation engendered by the setting -- make group coherence eminently rewarding and manageable, even with random online players.

To cheat another mechanic into this entry, the game's AI director -- which oversees item and enemy spawning based in part on player behavior -- is a brilliantly seamless method by which to not only promote replayability, but to feed into the intrinsically frantic nature of a four-player close-quarters FPS.

And after all, if you start to suspect the game is out to get you, the urge and ability to fight back is all the more intensified by having three comrades-in-arms on the other end of a headset.

LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule; PS3)
Mechanic: real-time level editing

LittleBigPlanet is as much about enabling gamers to participate in level design as anything else, which means its user design experience needed to at least approach the level of accessibility seen in more traditional gameplay.

Certainly, creating a LittleBigPlanet level requires more investment of time and creativity than playing a LittleBigPlanet level, but it is telling that the lines between the two can be somewhat blurred.

It is perhaps even more telling that, thanks to the game's intuitive, real-time nature of level editing, Media Molecule has shipped a creation mechanic that has proved enormously usable for end users while remaining standard issue for the studio's professional designers.

Mirror's Edge (Digital Illusions CE; Xbox 360, PS3)
Mechanic: first-person parkour

The demo for Mirror's Edge generated considerable gamer hype based on the surprising fluidity and elegance of its central hook, first-person freerunning amidst a cleanly-defined urban setting.

EA DICE's Mirror's Edge

Despite taking criticism upon full release for inconsistency and certain presentational elements, developer DICE nonetheless achieved an impressive feat with the implementation of the game's character control.

Combining a simple control setup with the immediacy of the first-person perspective, DICE translated a gameplay idea that had previously been well-explored in other formats into something extremely fresh.

Spore (Maxis; PC)
Mechanic: procedural character creation

Arguably the most significant gameplay feature of Will Wright's latest offering isn't even a direct part of what gamers would traditionally call its core gameplay, but Spore's procedural character creation mechanic can become an entire game unto itself.

Incorporating dynamic skeletal systems, animation, texturing, and more, Maxis achieved astonishingly robust results in an area of game design that in practice often ends up stilted and too-obviously artificial.

The tens of millions of diverse creatures and structures that have been generated demonstrate the diversity of Spore in particular, but the successful implementation of the technology should be encouraging to the development community at large.

Honorable Mentions:

Audiosurf (Dylan Fitterer; PC): dynamic music-based level creation
Bangai-O Spirits
(Treasure; Nintendo DS): auditory level sharing
Dead Space
(EA Redwood Shores; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): enemy limb dismemberment
echochrome
(SCE Japan Studio; PS3): Escher-esque perspective manifestation
Fallout 3
(Bethesda Game Studios; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): VATS combat
Far Cry 2
(Ubisoft Montreal; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): day/night and weather cycle
NHL 09
(EA Canada; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): fully human-controlled teams
PixelJunk Eden
(Q-Games; PS3): swing-based movement
Tom Clancy's EndWar
(Ubisoft Shanghai; Xbox 360, PS3): unit voice control
World of Goo
(2D Boy; PC, Wii): physics-based lattice building

Amusing Gameplay Mechanic Special Mentions

Army of Two (EA Montreal; Xbox 360, PS3): congratulatory player-to-player maneuvers
No More Heroes
(Grasshopper Manufacture; Wii): suggestive waggle-based sword recharging

You said:

Tom Newman: "Great choices! LBP would be my #1. ...and a hats off to the PSN title The Last Guy. I found the mechanics of this game to be both unique and addictive!"

Trent Polack: "I think the in-game interface, despite arguably being a mechanic (I argue at length on my personal site), is just as crucial to Dead Space as the 'strategic dismemberment' gameplay."

Jason Seabaugh: "I feel that Army of Two's co-op design elements deserved a larger nod than just for congratulatory player-to-player maneuvers. Almost every aspect of gameplay is built around co-op, especially the Aggro and Step Jumps. When you compare Left 4 Dead to Army of Two, L4D's co-op feels just like 4 people playing a single-player game at the same time."


Top 5 Indie Games

Now, we're going we take a look at the top five indie games released in 2008, with information from Gamasutra sister site IndieGames.com - and ten other 'honorable mentions' also included.

The games picked are the editors' choice, and span PC free-to-play titles released during 2008's calendar year to date, with a mixture of Flash and Windows executable games. (Many other fine pay-to-download games for console and PC that might be considered 'indie' were ranked in the Top 5 Downloadable Games earlier this week.)

5. You Have To Burn The Rope (Kian Bashiri) [video]

IndieGames.com's description: "Possibly inspired by Valve's Portal, You Have to Burn the Rope is an extremely short game that features good pixel art and sound production using DrPetter's sfxr tool. There is only one solution to the problem, though the credits will be remembered long after you've managed to beat the final boss."

From the creator of the newer, and equally tart Metro: Rules Of Conduct, You Have To... is a gorgeously cheeky tweak on the nose for games as a medium. It's silly, sure, but if you haven't played it before, it'll make you grin.

4. Rom Check Fail (Farbs) [video]

IndieGames.com's description: "ROM CHECK FAIL is a new action game from the developer of Fishie Fishie and Polychromatic Funk Monkey. Players have to clear the screen of all enemies to complete each level, but the task is made a little more difficult by the random switching of gameplay rules where ideas are recycled and remastered as an odd mix of arcade or console classics from the past."

The mashup has been a popular concept in music for some time, further popularized by tremendously complex, skilled practitioners like Girl Talk. Farbs' Rom Check Fail is a dazzling example of this - in no way could the Pac-Man vs. Space Invaders vs. everything mashup ever exist in a world ruled by copyright... but yet it does anyhow. Delightful.

3. Cursor*10 (Nekogames) [video]

IndieGames.com's description: "Cursor*10 is a puzzler which involves directing the actions of all ten cursors and clicks, one at a time. Events will loop, but it will take at least a couple of tries to figure out a solution for all sixteen floors."

Another example of the kind of experimental freeware wonder that makes us happy that games exist, this Flash wonder has you playing a cursor, acting on top of your previous actions to explore multiple levels of a stark isometric dungeon. It's difficult to explain, but it's wholly worth trying.

2. Everybody Dies (Jim Munroe/Michael Cho)

IndieGames.com's description: "Everybody Dies is an interactive fiction work written by Jim Munroe, with Michael Cho contributing illustrations for the game. The story is centered around three employees who happens to work in the same Cost Cutters grocery store building."

From the creator of the Artsy Game Incubator project, this illustrated text adventure is contemporary, thoughtful, and, as author Emily Short points out in her review: "...one of the best cases I’ve seen for the potential of illustrated IF not as a poor man’s version of a graphical game. but as its own thing."

1. I Wish I Were The Moon (Daniel Benmergui) [video - includes spoilers]

IndieGames.com's description: "I Wish I Were The Moon is a short puzzle game designed by Daniel Benmergui, where players must figure out the correct solution to achieve any of the five possible endings in this story. Use the camera frame to take pictures and relocate objects onscreen, or press the R key to reset the scene for another attempt."

Actually, there's now an updated version with even more endings, but this indie title goes to the core of what is fascinating about independent games today. At its best, they're different, they're evocative, they're poignant, and they make you think differently about yourself and your life. Why do you care? Who do you care about? Make your choice in this micro-game, and sink or swim accordingly.

Finally, honorable mentions for some of our favorite indie games in 2008 that didn't quite reach the top five go to: Knytt Nano, Incredibots, Chronotron, Dyson, Nanobots, Shift 3, Barkley Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden, Gravitation, Mighty Jill Off, Iji.

You said:

Psycho: "They might be interesting, but they are not 'Top 5 indie games' when there are titles such as World of Goo, Kudos 2, etc. Maybe 'Top 5 experimental indie games' would be more appropriate."

Peter Parker: "Is 'You have to burn the rope' an inside joke or something? That this 'game' is in fifth place is an insult to every other indie game ever created. It didn't make me 'grin' at all. I want my 30 seconds back right now."

Andrew Hopper: "Honorable mention? You gave Barkley's Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden an... honorable mention? For shame. For shaaaaaaaaame. My personal bias may be showing though."


Top 5 Surprises

Next, we'll cover this year's biggest surprises, recalling some of the year's most talked-about news stories, listed with no particular ranking imposed on importance -- "surprise" is subjective, after all!

Nintendo's Wii Selling Over 2 Million In November

Perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising -- we always suspected that Nintendo's adept address to the mainstream consumer was an enormously powerful strategy.

But in the same month that people finally began to use the word "recession," two million people turned out to buy a video game console -- a record-breaker for any non-December month.

And thanks to the recent Xbox 360 price cuts, Wii isn't even the cheapest console on the market, so its sales juggernaut is something of a monument to the industry's resilience -- or Nintendo's, at least. The company boasts that it's carried 198 percent of the industry's year-over-year U.S. growth on its shoulders.

But the most interesting revelation to derive from Wii's eyebrow-raising performance isn't that Nintendo's console sells like hotcakes. We knew that already.

The company's November numbers provide incontrovertible proof of a nagging suspicion that longtime traditional game fans have quietly nursed over the year -- they are now officially a niche, and the majority of "gamers" comprise an audience they hardly even knew existed.

Phil Harrison Becomes Infogrames President

The news for Atari hadn't been good for quite a long time. The company went into debt as it struggled to restructure, received numerous NASDAQ delisting warnings, and finalized its merger in full with French parent company Infogrames, who seemed likely to turn the once-noble Fuji into a distribution house.

But then, Phil Harrison left a prominent post as Sony's head of Worldwide Studios, where he'd become a recognizable face behind the PlayStation strategy. His new role?

To head up, in the words of the surprising announcement, a "transformational leadership team at Infogrames that will grow the Atari brand into a leading online game company."

And the transformation seems to be underway. Under Harrison's direction, Atari gathered up some of the promising orphans from the Activision-Vivendi merger, Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena and Ghostbusters from the newly-merged Activision Blizzard, along with kid-friendly film game The Tale of Despereaux dropped in the Brash Entertainment collapse.

Just recently, the company picked up City of Heroes/Villains creator Cryptic Studios, thereby gaining the team's upcoming Champions Online. Here's to more surprises from Atari in 2009.

Rock Band Creators Harmonix Partnering With Beatles

"We're not in the business of producing standalone games for every artist that's out there," said Van Toffler, MTV Music, Films and Logo group president on a surprise conference call -- but the Beatles are not just any artist.

It was revealed that an exclusive partnership among Apple Corps, MTV Games and Harmonix would bring one of the most venerated bands of all time to the world of video games through a single music title from the Rock Band developers, wholly devoted to the Beatles music.

It wasn't only an exciting announcement for fans of music and games both, but it was a serious testament to the power and reach of the Rock Band developers, and the real relevance it increasingly holds for musical artists of all kinds.

EA Partners With Grasshopper Manufacture

Renowned designer Suda51 and his Grasshopper Manufacture have earned acclaim for risk-taking, creativity and a distinct style -- but not so much for high sales and big profitability numbers.

That's why it came as a surprise to many that Electronic Arts announced a publishing partnership with Grasshopper for an upcoming horror title -- Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami as producer was the icing on the cake.

Of course, it's up for debate which part is more surprising -- that EA, a Western publishing giant with a past reputation for putting profits ahead of just about everything, would see the potential in Grasshopper; or that Suda51, who describes his studio's games as "punk style", would hitch his star to EA, who's had a bit of a checkered past when it comes to properly valuing talent.

Still, this was the year that EA's reformation efforts finally began to gain attention thanks largely to the overtly repentant attitude of CEO John Riccitiello and publishing relationships with well-respected studios like Valve and Harmonix.

The Grasshopper announcement was the moment, though, when the publisher drew a line in the sand and made it clear to industry-watchers that it really seemed to mean what it was saying.

Final Fantasy XIII To Hit Xbox 360

Think Final Fantasy, think PlayStation? Not anymore. In a year with few big reveals coming out of an ill-timed E3, Microsoft's announcement that the upcoming FFXIII would cross sanctified platform lines was nothing short of a shock.

Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII

Sony's Jack Tretton said that "disappointed is clearly an appropriate term" regarding Microsoft's efforts to "curry favor" with third parties, while Square Enix corporate executive Shinji Hashimoto said the objective behind the move was "to provide FFXIII to as many fans as possible in the world."

Microsoft kept the deal's only shortcoming close to its chest for as long as it could -- that it covered only the game's Western release, and did not apply to Japan, where Xbox 360 was at the time desperately in need of traction.

Turns out Tales of Vesperia made strides to help the console out there -- but if the PS3 continues to be widely outpaced by its rival in 2009, the FFXIII decision may turn out to be a black chapter in Sony's history book.

You said:

Jay Lee: "Among gamimg surprises this year there is no doubt FF XIII was the biggest 'surprise' to hit this year. Certainly made the biggest spalsh I've seen in gaming commmunties in a long time. Not surprising that it did happen however."

David Delanty: "The other big surprise of 2008 was the runaway successes of Braid, Geometry Wars, N+, and Castle Crashers. As the big-name companies are putting greater emphasis in well-established IP, implementing their strengths into sequels and the like, I was expecting the year to be defined by "var(product) = Last Year's Hit + 1." Seeing independent projects like these making their way into the mainstream and getting a substantial quantity of press coverage, it was a very pleasant surprise to me upon reflection. It gives quite a bit of hope for aspiring game designers."

Nathaniel Smith: "Not too many shockers in '08 compared to '07. but Nintendo's Wii sales continue to amaze. At the rate the Wii is selling the console can actually surpass 200 million in its life cycle."


Top 5 PC Games

Next, we'll cover this year's top five standalone (non-expansion) PC games and ten honorable mentions, highlighting fifteen standout titles from 2008, including both exclusive titles and multiplatform or ported releases. The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date.

This was an encouraging year for gaming's longest-running platform. Despite quite a few online explosions surrounding piracy and digital rights management controversies, the PC continued picking up more multiplatform support from major publishers, and produced a number significant exclusives.

Perhaps most rewardingly for longtime PC gamers, 2008 spawned many games that seemed to build heavily on the PC's heritage of game design built around player freedom, as seen not only in exclusives like Crysis Warhead, Spore, and Sins of a Solar Empire but also multiplatform games like Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3.

And as GameStop and other specialty retailers progressively marginalize PC shelf space, the ongoing growth and substantially increasing relevance of digital distribution platforms like Steam and Impulse has been welcome.

5. Crysis Warhead (Crytek)

Sometimes derided as nothing more than tech demos, Crytek's Crysis games indeed demand capable rigs and generate some of the most impressive real-time rendering in the medium -- but they are much more than that simplistic characterization suggests. Few non-simulation shooters have been as uncompromising in their willingness to let the player explore the world at will and carve out a particular tactical approach (with one exception in Far Cry 2, below).

Even Crysis Warhead, which consciously takes a few steps back from last year's sometimes overwhelmingly wide-open Crysis, offers leagues more freedom than the rest of today's on-rails shooter experiences in the vein of the Half-Lifes and Call of Dutys (great games in their own right). What Warhead trims in terms of scale is balanced out by a greater attention to pacing and sensible gameplay variety, as well as level design that seems more tuned to the game's unique (and enjoyable) combat and suit mechanics.

Finally, the "tech demo" detractors do have the right idea in one respect: Crysis Warhead is gorgeous, declining to make a statement with nontraditional rendering techniques and instead allowing the composition of its sprawling natural vistas to speak for itself.

4. Sins of a Solar Empire (Ironclad Games)

One of the year's great success stories was this space strategy title from Vancouver-based Ironclad Games, which put the small developer on the map and scored another hit for its increasingly influential publisher Stardock. Ostensibly a member of the "4X" genre of domination-oriented titles, Sins of a Solar Empire, with its explicit focus on battles and its real-time nature, is more like an RTS with 4X scale.

A game of Sins methodically unfolds, blossoming into an epic galactic conflict where tiny fighters zip around huge capital ships, which sail between massive planets -- all of which is dwarfed by the size of the overall battlefield, which can be easily surveyed thanks to the smooth-zooming scroll wheel mechanism that is becoming increasingly popular among PC strategy games. That feature is as useful a staple of gameplay as it is a showcase for the game's attractive visuals, which smoothly transition from ant's-eye views of individual craft out to map-like surveys of the surroundings.

Paradoxically, despite the constantly frenetic nature of the game, in which there is always something that can demand your attention, it rarely feels unduly overwhelming, avoiding the overly micro-heavy pitfalls of many smaller RTS games.

On a final note: Sins of a Solar Empire also deserves some kind of award for one of the most clever and alluring titles in gaming.

3. Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft Montreal)

Few games of 2008 have been as polarizing on the online forums as Far Cry 2 -- it has been understandably criticized for a repetitive mission structure and sometimes aggravatingly frequently-respawning enemies. But it is also one of the most progressive shooters this year, and for those with whom it hit home, it has been a rare joy.

Ubisoft Montreal took an admirably systemic approach with Far Cry 2 in a genre increasingly defined by scripted experiences. It doesn't ease the player into a difficulty curve so much as it drops the player headfirst into a brutal warzone where scavenged weapons fall apart and everyone is hostile, save the arms dealers looking to make a buck. For those willing to invest themselves into such a world, Far Cry 2 -- with its fire propagation, its recurring malaria, its beautiful open landscapes, its subtly dynamic buddy and mission system, essentially its total dedication to its own rather unusual gameplay premise -- can be immensely rewarding in a much different way to a straight, linear shooter.

Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2

Memorable moments abound, both in the ways combat plays out, as well as in the interactions with the environment. There is enormous attention to detail in Far Cry 2's Africa, not so much in terms of discrete content as much as in the way its systems are modeled. Legitimate flaws and all, Far Cry 2 often feels ahead of its time.

2. Left 4 Dead (Valve/Valve South)

There may be no other game released this year that can promise as consistently a thrilling and hilarious multiplayer experience as this. Out of Valve's ongoing attempts to bridge the gap between its highly-tuned single-player titles and the necessarily chaotic nature of multiplayer gaming comes Left 4 Dead, whose AI director and tight four-player cooperative play create a team-based atmosphere that is both coherent and unpredictable, even upon multiple playthroughs of the same campaign.

Hitting the right notes between necessary player-to-player interaction and the independence demanded by a first-person shooter, Left 4 Dead is possibly the most accurate video game representation of the classic cinematic zombie invasion to date, even as its antagonists operate quite differently to their traditionally sluggish filmic counterparts. Much of this is due to the group dynamics that the game fosters, coaxing out emergent archetypes like "that idiot who accidentally makes a noise and alerts the entire horde" or "the sole survivor who somehow staves off wave after wave and makes it to the chopper."

On top of that, the seemingly endless supply of brief character quips continues Valve's recent trend of summoning up surprising depth to characters who exist outside of any substantial defined narrative.

1. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios)

Bethesda's Fallout 3 not only outshone the studio's previous game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in just about every way, it accomplished the impressive task of satisfying most non-extremist-level fans of Black Isle's venerable Fallout series. Creating a vast world that is a convincing representation of a dismal, post-nuclear wasteland while also being consistently compelling is no mean feat, but here it is.

The sheer amount of content in Fallout 3 is extremely impressive, considering what a consistent level of quality it maintains -- and how much of it a player is likely to completely miss, based on the choices made, the NPCs killed, the routes traveled, and any number of other variables. The main storyline pales in comparison to the larger breadth of experiences to be had throughout, and the vast wasteland begs to be lived in.

To sweeten the deal for PC gamers, Bethesda has also released the G.E.C.K., an end user editing tool that can author any type of single-player content featured in Fallout 3 -- which will surely extend the title's already-considerable shelf life.

Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically)

Civilization IV: Colonization (Firaxis Games): This standalone remake of the 1994 original takes Firaxis' ever-addictive strategic gameplay and focuses in a specific crucial moment in history.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 (EA Los Angeles): This satisfying sequel adds an unexpected co-op component to otherwise old-school RTS design and gloriously cheesy FMV.

Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores): This vaguely System Shock 2-esque action game feels more at home on the consoles, but is a tight, engaging experience nonetheless.

Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar North): Major technical problems at launch nearly kept this port off the list completely, but for those who get it working it's still one of the year's standout game experiences.

Hinterland (Tilted Mill): This clever, stripped-down mix of action RPG and basic town-building wears its indie production values on its sleeve (sometimes to its detriment), but it drains the hours away very enjoyably.

King's Bounty: The Legend (Katauri Interactive): It was overlooked (decades-old IP didn't help) and undeniably old-school, but that's never been a big problem for tactical RPGs, and this is a good one.

Mass Effect (BioWare/Demiurge Studios): Demiurge Studios took its time to get BioWare's sci-fi RPG onto the PC, but the effort shows with significantly improved interface and more.

Penumbra: Black Plague (Frictional Games): The second entry in the sort-of-episodic series, Black Plague continues to subvert both the adventure and survival horror genres with its fresh approach.

Spore (Maxis): Though it wasn't all it could have been as a game, with extreme inconsistency in its various stages, those interested in game design owe it to themselves to give this absurdly ambitious effort a playthrough.

World of Goo (2D Boy): Brilliantly simple physics-driven gameplay is complemented by endearing, low-key production values -- and it was made by two guys!

You said:

William Meehan: "I think the WoW expansion should at least be mentioned. There's a reason why they're still on top. Also, Blizzard has included several new and interesting features (such as phasing) that really add to the user experience."

Bart Stewart: "Part of me wants to object that any game that was excluded for months from PC gamers should be excluded from this list. Is it helpful to reward a publisher with a 'best of' award or honorable mention for a game on a particular platform if that platform wasn't considered worthy of support at the game's launch?"

Jonathan Pynn: "I own the two non-shooters on the list. Both Fallout and Sins are pretty spectacular. How anyone can play Fallout and not feel immersed in a post nuclear wasteland is beyond me. Sins in my opinion in special in its AI, it punishes you for poor strategy without being unfair about it."


Top 5 Trends

It's been a year of exciting evolution for the game industry that can only be expected to continue. In fact, there are so many changes going on that Gamasutra was hard-pressed to choose just 20 major trends.

The final list was pared down from an initial selection of over 40, and we probably could have thought of many more -- especially as the industry expands to encompass everything from casual online games to Facebook apps, alongside three dedicated consoles and two handheld platforms.

There's so much diversity that choosing isn't simple, but, in a separate feature article, we've identified and explained 20 trends that have risen to the level that they cannot be ignored -- and here are just five of them.

1. The Continued Rise Of Outsourcing

Speak to any number of developers these days about asset generation, and the topic of outsourcing is never far from the discussion. Some companies, such as Alex Seropian's Wideload Games and American McGee's Spicy Horse Games, have built their business models around a "core" team, while using contractors for much of the process.

Whether or not you do, however, it's becoming increasingly relevant in these cost-cutting times. Major publishers, like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Konami, among others, maintain their own fully-owned outsourcing studios in China, which primarily handle art requests.

Though it's most prominent, it's not just Asian outsourcing that is necessarily the most relevant. Wideload's model suggests finding the most talented and experienced practitioners to produce the components of the game.

For example, in the case of Hail to the Chimp, the creators found a firm that had worked on actual news programs to do the game's faux-newscast motion graphics. In this sense, it's as much about talent and relevance as it is about savings, and points to another sign of the "Hollywoodized" future at which the industry continues to hint.

2. Casual MMOs? For Kids!

This market, which began under the radar and burst into headlines last year with the $350 million (plus incentives) acquisition of Club Penguin by Disney, continues to maintain its relevance in important ways.

Chief among them: MMO mavens' firm belief that the kids playing Club Penguin and other kids' MMOs today will demand services that offer similar (but improved) functionality as they outgrow these sites.

When their first taste of the power of social gaming technology is a Disney online world and not a Wii or Xbox 360, the expectations that drive the industry's possibilities for online interaction are being set outside of what is often considered the "norm".

Daniel James, president of casual MMO developer and publisher Three Rings (Puzzle Pirates) puts it this way: "People talk about the digital generation or whatever you want to call them... but I think there is a genuine shift when you have access to something at a young age. It changes your way of looking at the world."

With perhaps a glut of cute, original IP, venture-funded kids' worlds out there alongside a number of major brand-based and consumer-friendly projects (FusionFall from Cartoon Network, Gaia Online's zOMG!) yet to completely launch, it's a space that's still rapidly expanding.

3. You Don't Want DRM - You Want Services

As piracy grows ever easier, and as users become more and more vocal about the measures publishers take to try and stop it -- witness the Spore DRM controversy -- the appeal of user-friendly DRM lumped into a subscription service seems like the best solution.

After all, very few players complain about the fact that World of Warcraft is tied to a unique account that costs a constant $15 per month fee to keep playable -- because that's the very point of the game.

But even for games that don't require online interaction, the tied-to-an-account model can work a charm: Valve's Steam service is typically extremely well-regarded, thanks to its selection of games, its appealing community features, and most recently, the addition of its Steam Cloud service.

This makes online integration all the more relevant, as user data is stored on servers and accessible on any PC the player logs into. Surely, providing a tangible benefit for users to tie themselves to a verification system is the way to make to help the copy protection-related medicine go down?

4. Downloadable Content - A Cure For All Game Ills?

Whether or not GameStop's management wants to admit it, many developers and publishers consider the used game market to be, well, less than benevolent. Whether it should or can be stamped out completely is not the issue; few would disagree that at least discouraging players from selling games back quickly is a good idea.

One of the best current tools for doing so is downloadable content -- or as Xbox Live group program manager Alvin Gendrano put it at Microsoft's GameFest this year, "Using [premium DLC] we can keep your games being used over a long time. The longer your users play your titles, the less chance they give those titles away to retailers and sell them for used."

Moreover, stats Gendrano released suggest that games with strong DLC retain their market value for longer: "Games with PDLC were still selling for $59 in [the second quarter of their release lifespans]; those without were selling for $56." And Microsoft's Gears of War 2 recently took a new tactic; it shipped with one-time-use coupon for free DLC that can only be downloaded by the initial purchaser.

EA/Criterion's Burnout Paradise

Perhaps the boldest mover in this space, however, is EA's Criterion studio, which has launched the "Year of Paradise" initiative for the company -- its Burnout Paradise, first released in January, is still receiving substantive free DLC on a regular basis, with its first paid pack, Big Surf Island, coming approximately one year after the game's retail release.

5. The Inevitable User-Created Content Entry

LittleBigPlanet is generally viewed as the watershed moment for user-created content in console games. It's true that the game invites and champions it, and has a flexible environment for its creation.

But it's not the only example, and it's sure to be far from the final one. Heck, Microsoft's XNA Community Games experiment, while flooding its Xbox 360 channel with games that are difficult to sort through at times, at least shows the potential of handing console game creation over to high-level hobbyists -- another win for UCC.

And for conventional retail games, as professional creation of content gets ever more expensive, as the economy worsens, as the YouTube generation comes of age, the need to extend the lifespan and interest of titles continues to grow -- for retention and acquisition reasons.

Can there be any doubt that user-created content will become bigger and bigger? With the advent of the form -- big on PCs in one way and another for years -- on consoles in a truly user-friendly, 21st century way, it's going to drive the direction of the medium as much as any other recent innovation.


Top 5 Handheld Games

Next, we'll look at this year's top five handheld games and ten honorable mentions, the portable titles that managed to overcome their small-screen limitations to steal a big chunk of our time. The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the handheld titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date.

5. The World Ends With You (Square Enix/Jupiter, DS)

On a system that seems to receive a new forgettable Japanese RPG every other week, it's invigorating to see an original title like The World Ends With You, a game unique not only in its modern Shibuya (Tokyo district) setting and character designs, but in its story, which serves as a commentary on Japanese youth and hikikomori.

And it's from Square Enix, no less -- a studio recognized by most for its reliance on rehashes and spin-offs of established franchises, not for its catalog of peculiar and risky titles, which is an apt description for TWEWY. And while it's a surprise to see such an oddball title from the Final Fantasy publisher, it's even more astonishing that the company brought such an overtly Japanese game stateside.

TWEWY's bizarre combat system alone demonstrates how much effort the studios must have put into the game to make everything work -- players have to manage battles on two screens with two different input methods, also yelling into the oft-maligned microphone for some attacks. This shouldn't be fun at all, but somehow, it's one of the most enjoyable experiences on the Nintendo DS.

4. Aurora Feint (Danielle Cassley/Jason Citron, iPhone)

The most common reaction you'll see from players who've downloaded and played Aurora Feint -- besides mistaken accusations of the game acting as spyware -- is their surprise that this downloadable title is available for free.

Created in ten weeks by only two programmers, this addictive hybrid of RPG elements and Panel de Pon/Bejeweled-styled puzzles is more than just an iPhone clone of Infinite Interactive's Puzzle Quest; Aurora Feint's emphasis is on crafting instead of battling fantasy monsters. The game also adds an interesting twist to the formula by using the iPhone's accelerometer to tilt the board and puzzle pieces, as well as the system's multi-touch capabilities for pulling in additional puzzle blocks.

The game's more ambitious but less free follow-up, Aurora Feint II: The Arena, released just a month ago, adds new classes, leaderboards, and "asynchronous" player vs. player dueling. Gamers who prefer the original, however, can look forward to an inexpensive upcoming update adding chat and social networking features.

3. Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (Chunsoft, DS)

Considered by many in the know to be the finest Eastern-developed roguelike, Shiren the Wanderer finally made its way to the States after enjoying 13 years and now eight releases in Japan. This is probably one of the most hardcore and niche titles on any platform -- certainly a lot less accessible and yielding than its Pokémon Mystery Dungeon counterparts -- but someone had to give Shiren its due (and properly thank Sega for bringing over this game that hardly anyone bought)!

Though insanely difficult, punishing heedless adventurers at every turn and sending them back to the beginning town without any of their equipment or XP, Shiren is also immensely rewarding to those who can survive the game's trap-filled dungeons and monster-choked corridors.

You'll need the resourcefulness of MacGyver, the preparation of Batman, and the prescience of Ender Wiggin just to make your way to the main dungeon's final boss, but you'll also feel as accomplished as all three of those fictional heroes when you finally get there.

2. Patapon (Pyramid/Japan Studios, PSP)

Part RPG, part real-time strategy game, and part rhythm game, Patapon is absolutely adorable, from its chanting, peppy eponymous tribe, to their catchy "pata-pata-pata-pon"s sung as they march towards enemies and intimidatingly large bosses.

Despite its jaunty characters and inviting, silhouetted environments, the game can be exceedingly difficult, demanding that players time their button presses perfectly to the beat for several minutes at a time, and that they watch out for subtle visual cues from enemies and their tribe to decide whether to retreat, defend, or attack.

Like Shiren, though, mastering the art of commanding your troops with simple drumbeats, and then successfully leading them against their mighty foes brings a cheerful sense of reward that will have players tapping their foot along with their tribe's steps.

1. Space Invaders Extreme (Taito/Gulti, DS/PSP)

It was a big year for Space Invaders; celebrating its 30th anniversary, the franchise went extreme, got even, and made plans to further mutate with an Infinity Gene.

As with Namco Bandai's 2007 re-vamp Pac-Man CE, Space Invaders Extreme retains all the fun and challenge of the original arcade game, but modernizes it with a stirring techno soundtrack, clever boss fights, an interesting power-up/level-up system, new enemy types, and branching stages.

While the game is excellent on both the PSP and Nintendo DS, we prefer the latter version for its online multiplayer and leaderboards, support of the import-only paddle controller, more pleasing soundtrack, Mr. Esc (from Exit) cameos, and single-cart multiplayer. An Xbox Live Arcade release is also planned for next year with four-player co-op in the arcade mode and with background visualizers created by Llamasoft's Jeff Minter (Space Giraffe).

Finally, honorable mentions for some of our favorite handheld games in 2008 that didn't quite reach the top five go to: Soul Bubbles, God of War: Chains of Olympus, Chrono Trigger, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Trism, Lock's Quest, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, Princess Debut, and Bangai-O Spirits.

You said:

Roberto Alfonso: "I would have selected Layton as the best one personally, since it was the only one that made me return every week. Bangai-O Spirits is mentioned fortunately, but no mention for Etrian Odyssey 2 is sad (I guess with Shiren the rogue-like genre was already well represented)."

Russell Carroll: "I'd also have gone with Layton. It's one of the few games my wife had interest in this year (we worked through the puzzles together) and I thought the animation was just flat-out amazing. It's an original game with good story and lots of innovation, very much looking forward to part 2 coming stateside."

Christian Keichel: "Totally agree with Space Invaders Extreme, in my opinion it was one of the few games of the last years that really deserved it to be called "art". The whole game is the new interpretation of the Space Invaders concept. The idea to combine the soundtrack with the players actions is a fantastic reimagination of the Space Invaders march."


Top 5 Developers

Next, we'll look at this year's top five development studios (listed alphabetically) and ten honorable mentions. Included developers released at least one title during the 2008 calendar year.

They also demonstrated uncommon achievement with that release and/or exhibiting significant dedication to community, innovative business models, frequently-unheralded genres, or other noteworthy areas. Only specific development teams, offices, or divisions were eligible; entire publishers were not.

Bethesda Game Studios (Fallout 3)

As a developer, Bethesda has carved out a remarkable role for itself, spending years to create massive, open-world, single-player RPGs -- hardly a booming genre in the industry at large -- to great success, bringing a once-niche PC genre to a broad multiplatform audience.

And after over 15 years of developing its own Elder Scrolls fantasy universe, Bethesda has become the custodian of Black Isle's Fallout, successfully transitioning that legendary property into the modern era.

And continuing its tradition of delivering new material post-release as it prepares to ship new story content next year, Bethesda has made available the world editor for Fallout 3 on PC, continuing a practice it carried out for years with The Elder Scrolls Construction Set.

Media Molecule (LittleBigPlanet)

Young UK-based studio Media Molecule practically oozes enthusiasm. Founded by four Lionhead expatriots, the small studio's first game LittleBigPlanet immediately grabbed the attention of the development and enthusiast communities for its lighthearted emphasis on user-driven content and systematic focus on physics and cooperation.

Upon release, LittleBigPlanet was hailed for delivering to gamers the same powerful level creation tools used by its own designers, offering accessibility without sacrificing depth.

And Media Molecule set itself apart by creating a unrestrainedly joyous gameplay experience that somehow manages to elevate goofing around with friends (or strangers) to a level rarely seen in major game releases.

Ubisoft Montreal (Far Cry 2, Prince of Persia, Assassin's Creed [PC], Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2, Shaun White Snowboarding, Lost: Via Domus)

With the number of titles produced by this ever-growing studio, it admittedly becomes harder and harder to single it out as one developer in the same sense as some of the other entries on this list -- and some of its 2008 releases, like Lost: Via Domus didn't exactly make the biggest splash.

But over the last decade, Ubisoft Montreal has become the crown jewel in Ubisoft's extensive development stable, and it consistently manages to turn out innovative, risky titles alongside its safer bets.

Like last year's Assassin's Creed (released this year for PC), Far Cry 2 generated strong discussion (and disagreement) among gamers due to often interesting and unusual design choices.

Employees of Ubisoft Montreal have become known for espousing the belief that it is important to attempt new types of gameplay and design systems, even if they aren't executed perfectly the first time out -- an unusual ethic for such a major division of a large, mainstream publisher.

Valve (Left 4 Dead, Portal: Still Alive)

Valve continues to be one of the shining examples of a successful independent studio that has diversified to the point that its fortunes never hinge on the success of any single major venture.

Over the last few years, it has broadened the scope of game experiences it develops, and this year delivered the creative and brilliantly executed Left 4 Dead after having picked up the game's developer Turtle Rock Studios

Valve's Left 4 Dead

With Steam, Valve has invested not just in its own IP, but in PC gaming at large. On a seemingly constant basis, new developers and publishers of all sizes are signing up to the service to host their back catalogues and release new titles.

And Valve has used its growing position of influence to speak up for the virtues of the platform, becoming a visible and vocal proponent of PC development and gaming in a financially-justified way virtually no other individual studio can.

Independent Game Developers

In a year that has increasingly seen layoffs, salary reductions, and studio closures across every segment of the industry, it is worth recognizing the collective efforts of independent studios worldwide, including those not explicitly listed here.

With economic uncertainty lessening available funding and causing speculative cost reductions even as industry revenue continues to grow, those studios that continue to operate self-sufficiently, despite the difficulties and dangers often inherent to that model, deserve credit.

Development Studio Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically)

2D Boy (World of Goo)
Atlus Co. (Persona 4, Persona 3 FES, Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2, Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard)
Black Rock Studio (Pure)
Blizzard Entertainment (World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King)
Criterion Games (Burnout Paradise)
Epic Games (Gears of War 2)
Firaxis Games (Civilization IV: Colonization, Civilization: Revolution)
Ironclad Games (Sins of a Solar Empire)
Q-Games (PixelJunk Monsters, PixelJunk Eden)
Telltale Games (Sam & Max Season 2 [Episodes 2-5], Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People [Episodes 1-5]) 

You said:

Taure Anthony: "2d Boy & Media Molecule have the creativeness and innovation that has always been an important design law to follow in which they do well it's minds like these that have influenced me to be a game designer/director."

Russell Sitka: "Valve is smartly embracing a long term strategy with its (multiplayer) games, something much of the rest of the industry could do well to learn from. Developers like Telltale have done what I thought would be impossible in resurrecting the dinosaur that is adventure games."

Andrius Kavaliunas: "Number none (Braid) is probably worth mentioning."


Top 10 Controversies

Next, we'll look at this year's ten biggest controversies, the public issues that fueled the big disputes and blog hits, alongside the industry moments that drew enough attention for their impact to resonate into the coming year.

Video Games and the Music Biz: Who Needs Who More?

Activision CEO Bobby Kotick went to war with words against Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman over whether games like Guitar Hero are helping keep music artists afloat -- or whether the games would sink without the songs.

Bronfman stated that, given that band games depend on their track lists, the amount of royalties the industry pays is "far too small", while Kotick retorted that such comments were not "respectful of how much we’ve done to bring new audiences into the market."

Although the long-term outlook for the popularity of band games continues to be in dispute, it's inarguable that neither party can do without the other. Kotick points out, however, that Activision's Guitar Hero: Aerosmith generated more revenue for the band than any individual Aerosmith album.

LittleBigPlanet's Qur'an Lyrics

Media Molecule said it felt "shellshocked and gutted" when its long-awaited LittleBigPlanet was yanked back just at the cusp of its launch, after audio samples from the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, were discovered in the game's soundtrack.

Many Muslims consider the use of the Qur'an in music to be an offense, although the song's artist Toumani Diabate, a Grammy-winning Muslim himself, explained at length the context for the music.

Case of paranoia? Perhaps, but Muslim groups praised Sony's decision to be extra-respectful, while fans bemoaned the extra days' delay.

Electronic Arts' Bid For Take Two

The great big battle royale for the fate of Take-Two went on all year, through numerous bid renewals, FTC investigations, sports monopoly worries, nondisclosure agreements and, ultimately, a surrender.

The hostile takeover attempt drew the attention of Wall Street because of its similarity to Microsoft's languishing bid for Yahoo!. But it also attracted game fans largely thanks to what EA CEO John Riccitiello calls a "personal narrative" -- the visual of two powerful CEOs who both refused to yield their position.

Even analysts wondered if ego didn't play a role in the power struggle somewhere. The coming year is sure to yield some insight on the wisdom of both companies' positions.

Spore's DRM Debacle

Fans had awaited Will Wright's latest project since 2005. But the launch of Spore was met not so much with discussion of its game mechanics, but with a firestorm of controversy around its digital rights management system.

Those who stood in opposition to the title's comparatively rigid DRM fought back, inundating the game's Amazon listings with negative reviews -- and at one point reducing the title's user rating to a single star.

More importantly, the Spore issue brought to light just how complex the issue of game piracy is. And it increased the urgency on organizations like the PC Gaming Alliance to lead the charge in evaluating how piracy's impact on sales can be measured.

Ultimately, BitTorrent news site TorrentFreak claimed that Spore is the most-pirated game of all time, and armchair analysts speculate that the title was made to receive retribution for its copy protection methods.

Mythic's Crediting Controversy

Mythic Entertainment's drew fire when it was revealed that its new MMO, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning would only credit those staff members currently working at the developer, a move the International Game Developers Association immediately called "disrespectful".

The debate was on -- does providing credits to all employees on a project, regardless of their status, remove their incentive to stay with the company until the project's done?

IGDA chairperson Jennifer MacLean called that assertion "arbitrary, unfair and in some cases even vindictive... they simply don't hold up."

In the end, Mythic emerged as a studio on the forefront of thorough employee crediting. It announced its intention to create an online database that will list the names of all staff members who contribute to its projects. The IGDA's MacLean later apologized to Mythic's Mark Jacobs.


Itagaki Takes On Tecmo

Already a controversial figure in part for his vocal criticisms of other developers' work, Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden creator Tomonobu Itagaki claimed he was entitled to a $1.4 million completion bonus from Tecmo regarding Dead or Alive 4.

Itagaki abruptly resigned and filed suit, which might have prompted others to take on Tecmo. Shortly thereafter, 300 other employees raised a class-action suit against the company for unpaid overtime and an illegal "flexible hours" work scheme. Tecmo has yet to resolve things with Itagaki, but in the meantime, has slapped the vocal developer with a gag order.

"Stop Doing Interviews"

A spat erupted at Activision over the Call of Duty franchise, when, promoting Call of Duty: World at War, publisher-side senior producer Noah Heller was apparently too vocal for some tastes on all the shortfalls of CoD4 that CoD5 would address.

Robert Bowling, community manager at CoD4 developer Infinity Ward, posted a rant on his personal blog entreating Heller to "stop doing interviews," to "promote YOUR game" instead of comparing it to others.

He also pleaded with the media to stop interviewing Heller -- whom he now-famously referred to as "Senior Super Douche" -- and speak instead to the development team at CoD5 developer Treyarch directly.

(This controversy was so pungent that Gamasutra staffer Chris Remo recently used his spare time to set it to music, with delectable results.)

Wilson And Romero Revisit The Past

When Doom creator John Romero referred to former Ion Storm colleague Mike Wilson's work with his venture, the now-defunct Gamecock Media Group, as "jackass stunts," Wilson fired back in an open letter to consumer weblog Kotaku, opening an old argument -- who was responsible for those ill-advised Daikatana ads?

"Unlike you, I didn't get to file a federal trademark for my own personal catch phrase, 'Suck it Down,'" dug Wilson, offering many eyes a look inside the long-running dispute.

The public spat featured fairly gruesome mudslinging from both sides, backhanded snark and lots of public airing of unresolved grievances. Ugly.

Salary Cap Collusion in Montreal?

A former Eidos employee reached out to fellow publishers in Montreal to suggest a "collaboration" to "avoid a bid for higher wages which would only benefit the employee."

That employee, Flavie Tremblay, was allegedly let go from Eidos at that time, and it's still unclear the extent to which any Montreal companies colluded on salary caps, if at all.

But Tremblay, who worked at Ubisoft prior to Eidos, was subsequently re-hired by Ubisoft, and the latest information suggests she still works there. Most parties involved are tight-lipped, but is Tremblay's continued employment an endorsement of her efforts?

ESA Sees Mass Exodus

Throughout the year, the Entertainment Software Association saw a slate of high-profile departures including Activision, Vivendi and LucasArts.

The accompanying discussion suggested big publishers were beginning to question the benefit of the association -- and its E3 event, which has struggled to find its groove amid changes to its formula in recent years.

The publisher departures brought a wave of questions about new president Mike Gallagher's leadership, the function and future of E3, and the cost-benefit equation of ESA memberships that may have prompted the association to announce it would try to return E3 to some of its former glitz and glamor in 2009. Next year will be key for the association to answer some of those lingering questions.

Other Controversies: The PSP 3000's unfixable scan lines, GTA IV's PC release, Activision's Kotick wants franchises with the "potential to be exploited", PEGI vs. BBFC war for UK ratings dominance, Microsoft knew about the Xbox 360's disc-scratching problem, Factor 5 employee reveals studio problems.

You said:

Tom Newman: "#1 for me was the Activision announcement. Activision's origin lies with giving creative freedom and credit to the developers, and the announcement that they are not publishing major titles because they can't turn them into annual franchises baffles the mind. Some of the greatest games ever have been non-franchises. Some of the top-sellers are not franchises either."

Stephen Tramer: "What, no Dennis Dyack baiting NeoGAF? I guess that was already covered in 2008 Developers, but that was still the most hilarious kerfluffle of the year. At least as good as Wilson/Romero."

Rebecca Fernandes: "My favorite was media pundits and analysts claiming that gaming was recession proof. Tell that to all the staff laid off over the last two months..."


Top 10 Games of the Year

Now (finally!), we look at this year's top 10 games, collaboratively chosen and ranked by our staff. Each member of our team also highlights his or her own personal picks that didn't make the group list.

10. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (Konami, Nintendo DS)

Order of Ecclesia isn't dramatically different from any of producer Koji Igarashi's other Castlevania titles -- almost every release follows Symphony of the Night's template -- but it adds and changes enough to make this latest refinement of the "Metroidvania" formula an easy addition to our year-end list.

Ecclesia thankfully casts out the juvenile and generic anime character designs that blighted the previous two DS games, in favor of Hirooka Masaki's more fitting "gothic" art direction. The game also replaces Portrait of Ruin's clumsy two-character gameplay with a strong, graceful heroine, Shanoa, who takes on Dracula and his minions just fine without the help of a Vampire Killer whip.

Adding to our enjoyment, Ecclesia is probably the hardest Castlevania title since the franchise's NES years, requiring quick wits and a lot of boss pattern memorization, much to the appreciation of series faithfuls (and the chagrin of softer gamers). As a fan once succinctly described the game's difficulty, "This ain't no Casualvania."

9. Valkyria Chronicles (Sega, Playstation 3)

The Japanese have a reputation for being the most conservative market in game development -- and whether or not it's truly deserved, it's heartening to see an example of a development team starting with a rigid, conventional idea and tossing it aside in favor of a spirited new evolution of a genre.

Sega's Valkyria Chronicles

While Valkyria Chronicles began its development cycle as a top-down strategy title in debt to classics like Final Fantasy Tactics, it was released as a genre-defying, engrossing new blend of realtime and turn-based strategy, with a perspective that has more in common with Gears of War than Square Enix, but retains the pleasingly crunchy tactical depth Japanese games are best known for.

Add in a surprisingly mature story and beautiful watercolor visuals and you get a cult classic that is getting nowhere the attention it deserves from gamers this year, and one of the strongest exclusives on Sony's platform.

8. Braid (Number None, Xbox 360/PC)

Jonathan Blow and David Hellman's Braid is likely one of the most-trumpeted indie games of all time - partly due to it winning an IGF prize all the way back in 2006, before an extensive graphical rehaul and its subsequent debut on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008. But try to shut the hype out, and you'll find something special.

Specifically, Braid is a title with carefully thought-out, ingenious puzzles, David Hellman's evocative art, and an underlying story that doesn't lack soul - however many different interpretations you might have of it.

It's a game that makes you think and one that you care about, ultimately - and its rapturous critical reception reflects that.

7. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (Bizarre Creations, Xbox 360)

The simple majesty of Geometry Wars 2 is easy to grok, of course. The first Xbox Live Arcade version of Geometry Wars, itself following up a programmer-created homage to classic '80s twin-stick shooters like Robotron, re-ignited the genre.

It also raised an interesting question. When you've been to 10 already, where is 11 in the world of abstract shooter gymnastics? That would be Geometry Wars 2, then -- particularly to be praised for the ingenious 'side stories' that make clever alternative use of the gameplay.

When you have glorious variants like 'King' and the fiendish 'Pacifism' being, plus robust online score integration and the perfectly thought-out 'Sequence' mode, you end up with an adrenaline-bespattered winner.


6. Persona 4 (Atlus, PS2)

Modern, hip and overtly Japanese, Persona 4 is proof positive that the Japanese RPG can evolve for a broadening audience. The game sheds dated conventions and implausible fantasies in favor of a stylish, immensely thought-provoking and surreal self-discovery story set in a rural-area Japanese high school.

Though many JRPGs hinge on the stories of teenagers, Persona 4's themes focus on the perils of self-denial and the necessity of facing one's inner self, particularly poignant and useful in the context of the characters' believably confusing life stage.

Persona 4 is a game that requires no small measure of patience. The reward, however, is character and story growth via an intriguing system of social and behavioral rewards that perfects the promising formula introduced in Persona 3.

5. Left 4 Dead (Valve/Valve South, Xbox 360/PC)

There may be no other game released this year that can promise as consistently a thrilling and hilarious multiplayer experience as this. Out of Valve's ongoing attempts to bridge the gap between its highly-tuned single-player titles and the necessarily chaotic nature of multiplayer gaming comes Left 4 Dead.

Its AI director and tight four-player cooperative play create a team-based atmosphere that is both coherent and unpredictable, even upon multiple playthroughs of the same campaign.

Hitting the right notes between necessary player-to-player interaction and the independence demanded by a first-person shooter, Left 4 Dead is possibly the most accurate video game representation of the classic cinematic zombie invasion to date, partly due to the group dynamics that the game fosters.

During a given game, emergent archetypes like "that idiot who accidentally makes a noise and alerts the entire horde" or "the sole survivor who somehow staves off wave after wave and makes it to the chopper" begin to appear.

On top of that, the seemingly endless supply of brief character quips continues Valve's recent trend of summoning up surprising depth to characters who exist outside of any substantial defined narrative.

4. No More Heroes (Grasshopper Manufacture, Wii)

At first blush, it's a bizarre and comic-bookish send-up of the American otaku. But No More Heroes quickly reveals its charm -- amid the mashed-up game homages and lewd humor is a surprisingly classy and vaguely disturbing allegory for the video game hero.

Travis Touchdown, of the fluorescent-lamp lightsaber and implausible fantasy motorbike, isn't nearly the smooth operator he thinks he is.

This makes his strikeouts in love just as weirdly poignant as his confrontations with unlikely assassins -- including a viciously intoxicated teen queen, a batty old lady with a shopping cart, and a crooner with a handlebar moustache.

Ubisoft/Grasshopper Manufacture's No More Heroes

Of course, famed director Goichi Suda's savvy act of holding up a mirror to his audience and his industry might just be a bit of forgettable cleverness if not for how brilliantly it uses its controls.

No More Heroes is that rare title that aptly leverages the Wii remote appropriately at every madly joyful, blood-spurting, coin-jangling turn.

3. LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule, PS3)

What is perhaps most surprising about LittleBigPlanet is that it lived up to the creative promise that was initially made (contrast Home, which debuted simultaneously). Anyone really can make whatever they want and share it with the world, and that's crucially important to the appeal, longevity, and landmark status of the game. Anyone can become a designer.

There have been stumbling blocks, but they have mostly been vaulted with finesse: ropey server stability at launch and a black box review process for standards-infringing levels have given way to the free-for-all promised. And while the game has not sold as well in Japan or North America as hoped (we think Europe went better), it has made an impact.

But more importantly, perhaps, and often forgotten when discussing games, is the way LBP so expertly catches the now in the most appealing way. It's a beautiful, inviting, vital, charming land of zeitgeist that defines a new visual, aural, creative language for platformers.

Most importantly, Media Molecule's game finally follows up the Mario aesthetic and ethos with something as aesthetically, conceptually, and socially compelling.

2. World of Goo (2D Boy, Wii Ware/PC)

After leaving their jobs at Electronic Arts, Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel founded development studio 2D Boy (it's just them, and there's not really a physical studio) and spent two years making World of Goo, a physics-driven puzzle game for PC and WiiWare.

The risk paid off -- World of Goo was adored by gamers and the press, and was seen as an inspiring indie success story in a year that has not wanted for inspiring indie success stories.

World of Goo works by marrying gameplay that is outwardly simple in scope with an underlying physics system that allows for solutions to challenges that are neither random nor overly restrictive in approach -- a rarity in the puzzle genre. And it's all wrapped in a clean, coherent visual theme and accompanied by a lovingly handmade score that is epic and nutty in equal measure.


1. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)

Perhaps the greatest argument to date that games are about more than wish fulfillment -- for who'd wish to be a vault exile in an expansive, exhausting wasteland? And yet Bethesda's vision of the American dream languishing in nuclear post-apocalypse is as compelling as it is haunting.

The bar was high for Bethesda after the much-vaunted Oblivion, lauded for its freedom of choice -- and Fallout 3 topped it, offering an unprecedentedly exhausting array of options and a rarely-seen level of subtlety.

There's just so much to do and see that Fallout 3 becomes that rare game that asks the player to wonder what life would feel like in such ruthless circumstances, offering an impressive level of immersion and placing the burden of careful thought -- and, sometimes, emotion -- behind every tactical selection and progression decision.

Bethesda's Fallout 3

Despite its flaws, the larger swath of experiences to be had throughout dwarfs the main storyline, and the vast wasteland begs to be lived in.

Staff Picks

The individual staff of Gamasutra and its sister publication, Game Developer magazine, each chose our personal favorite titles that didn't make our team top 10.

Leigh Alexander (News Director, Gamasutra)

Metal Gear Solid 4 (Konami, PS3) Tying up all those loose ends was a feat in and of itself, while so many moments of gameplay brilliance went overlooked because of the format.

PixelJunk Eden (Q Games, PS3) Compelling, frustrating, utterly satisfying audiovisual genius.

Chrono Trigger DS (Square Enix, DS) The RPG genre's most venerated installment gets perhaps the best remake ever seen on DS.

Eric Caoili (Associate News Editor, Gamasutra)

Space Invaders Extreme (Taito/Gulti, DS/PSP) An arcade classic with new mechanics, new audio and visuals, and new life breathed into it.

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (Chunsoft, DS) Only for gamers who love a challenge, Shiren the Wanderer is the finest Eastern-developed roguelike, finally brought to the West after 13 years of dungeon crawling in Japan.

I Wish I Were The Moon (Daniel Benmergui, Flash) "I still look for her as soon as the first sliver appears in the sky, and the more it waxes, the more clearly I imagine I can see her..." from Italo Calvino's "The Distance of the Moon," the short story that inspired I Wish I Were The Moon.

Simon Carless (Publisher, Gamasutra)

Fable II (Lionhead, Xbox 360) A wonderfully realized living game world, with plenty of quirks, but even more heart.

N+ (Metanet/Slick, Xbox 360) Delightfully pixel-perfect retro action, with super-addictive online scoreboards.

Pure (Black Rock, Xbox 360/PS3/PC) Marauding into the ATV-drivin' genre and showing its predecessors the super-addictive gameplay they missed.

Jeffrey Fleming (Production Editor, Game Developer magazine)

Korg DS-10 Synthesizer (AQ Interactive, DS) Cheaper and more powerful than the original all-analog Korg MS-10 (circa 1978) and thankfully free from any "gameplay".

Lost Odyssey (Mistwalker, Xbox 360) Delivers the same shivering intermingling of wonderment and melancholy that we remember from the old days without pandering to childish nostalgia.

Siren: Blood Curse (SCE Japan, PS3) The reduced difficulty level and Americanized presentation of Blood Curse makes it easier for the uninitiated to discover what the rest of us already know: Siren is the raw horror of seeing our own tangled neural pathways externalized.

Christian Nutt (Features Editor, Gamasutra):

Yakuza 2 (Sega, PS2) The underrated and overlooked gem of Sega's current development efforts returns with another compellingly adult and sophisticated tale -- with visceral punchy-kicky and unmatched verisimilitude, particularly for a PS2 title.

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (Square Enix, PSP) You say fan service, we say "brand extension done right" -- a compelling prelude to the original game, and, perhaps more importantly, gameplay design that's perfectly tailored to the PSP platform.

Gears of War 2 (Epic, Xbox 360) More of the same? More or less. Expanded in scope, and with expert polish and great gusto, boldly reminding us the value of dialing in your focus and embellishing only what you know you can get right.

Chris Remo (Editor At Large, Gamasutra)

Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft Montreal, Xbox 360/PS3/PC) Its gameplay can be unfriendly at times, but Far Cry 2's design is appealingly risky, and the experience pays off player investment in spades.

Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar North, Xbox 360/PS3/PC) It's not revolutionary after its last-gen predecessors, but Rockstar North's latest provided plenty of sandbox fun, a compelling plot, and heroic attention to detail.

Sins of a Solar Empire (Ironclad Games, PC) With its debut effort, Ironclad successfully balanced RTS and 4X gameplay to make a game that is both of massive scale and eminently playable -- no mean feat.

Brandon Sheffield (Editor-in-Chief, Game Developer magazine)

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin (Nintendo, DS) Slickly presented, this iteration finally took its audience into account, aged up a few years and maintained the same precise gameplay -- with a hint of luck -- that the series is known for.

Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix (Backbone, Xbox 360/PS3) Unattractive looks aside, the heart of SSFIIT is beating stronger than ever.

Mortal Kombat Vs DC Universe (Midway, Xbox 360/PS3) I never considered Mortal Kombat a "real" fighting series, but the system differentiates from existing 2D-oriented fighter -- and this game in particular emphasizes arcade-style fun over everything else.

You said:

Jeff Beaudoin: "From the list, it is obvious that Gamasutra prizes innovation over series extension. I am glad they aren't afraid to go in this direction, rather than making another cookie cutter list that consists of some arrangement of GTA4, GOW2, MGS4, Fable 2, and Fallout 3. Having the staff picks was a good way to showcase these games while avoiding having to give them one of the top 10 spots."

Seth Burnette: "I would say that Fallout 3 was my favorite this year by far and probably will continue to be on into '09. World of Goo was a fantastic surprise. Braid was another good one and while it could be a bit pretentious, it was a great way for Jonathan Blow to finally put his money where his mouth is, so to speak. I hope to see more successful 'uppity' indie game developers like him work at chipping away the status quo."

David Tarris: "Bethesda had the greatest burden of proof of any developer I've seen. They had to prove themselves to not only the fans of Oblivion who wondered if they could top their masterpiece, but the fans of Fallout as well. The bar was high, but they exceeded it."

Tom Newman: "Thanks for giving proper credit to Persona 4. This may be the best PS2 rpg, most certainly in the top 5. While many Japanese developers have been lacking in the innovation category, this game picks up the slack. Having the player form rather mundane relationships with other npc's in order to level up battlefield stats and gain new abilities turned out to provide an emotional attachment to the charachters in the game I have not felt since first playing FFVII on PS1. All the Shin Megami games are outstanding, but this is a gem among gems."

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